Aunty Ruby's Lo Han Chai (Chai Choy or Chap Chye)

Monday, February 11, 2013

(At the time of writing, I had just seen with my girls - and loved again - the great movie, Forrest Gump. So, stupid as stupid does, you must excuse some Gump-speak here.)

Lo Han Chai is a regular Chinese New Year favorite. My mama cooks this all the time. Every Chinese New Year. Some call it chap chye. Others call it Lo Hon Chye. I even remember my sister and cousins calling it "yummy". A strange name, that was.

It is a precious tradition passed down by my mother, her mother and her mother's mother and so on.

It is normally served on the 1st day. Strictly speaking, it is supposed to be a vegetarian dish. This is for those who do not eat animals. Or so they claim. I see them munching bak kwa after the meal.

Like most Chinese families today, we have moved on from that. We eat this as and when we like.  And, stupid as stupid does, we add chicken stock to this "vegetarian" dish. Sorry.

My mama told me that this is best eaten the traditional way. This means an individual bowl of steaming hot chap chye with a pair of chopsticks and ceramic soup spoon. White rice accompanies it well, along with some sambal belachan for the Nonyas.

According to one's dialect background, there are different versions of this. At the heart of it is always cabbage, whether long (wong bok) or round (white). One looks like a rugby ball and the other, a soccer ball. Wong Bok has better texture but the round white cabbage is sweeter. You can choose to use both at the same time. But I need to tell you, you can't do the same for football.

(Hmm.. if you find this post sounding funny - please read the first few introductory lines of this post...)

We grew up eating this with Sambal Belachan. Tumbuk, no less.
Nonya adds tau cheong (brown soy bean paste) while Hokkien normally go for nam yee (red fermented bean curd). Sometimes my Mama used the milder tasting Fu Yee (white fermented bean curd), though as a general rule, red is for cooking and white is for eating. The rest of the stuff are the "vegetarian meat" i.e mushrooms, bean curd, lily bulbs, fungus etc. Dried oysters are also added sometimes.

Here is my Mum's recipe. It acts as a guide. You should use whatever you fancy. There are many different types of beancurd, including fu pok,  ieen kan etc. Add what you like.

Aunty Ruby's Lo Han Chai

Ingredients (serves 5-6)

2 packs/50g bean vermicelli, deep-fried
4 pieces dried sweet beancurd wafers, deep-fried and cut into pieces
2 pieces dried beancurd stick, cut into strips and deep-fried
8 Chinese dried mushrooms, soaked and sliced
15-20 pieces of small dried oysters (Hou See), soaked first
15 small black fungus, soaked and cut into pieces
12 dried lily buds , trimmed, soaked and knotted
Some black moss (optional), soak first
1 large Chinese cabbage (Wong Bak/Bok Choy), cut into broad strips
1 white cabbage, cut into pieces
2 carrots, shredded
2 thin slices of ginger
4 pieces red fermented bean curds (2cm x 2cm cube), mashed finely
2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 liter of water or stock
Coriander leaves, for garnish

  1. Lightly deep fry the bean curd sticks and vermicelli and set aside.
  2. Braise mushrooms/dried oysters separately in low fire for about 30 minutes in some stock/water with some oyster sauce and soy sauce.
  3. Heat oil in a wok. Add the ginger and fry till golden brown.
  4. Add the red fermented bean curd,and stir-fry briskly until aromatic.
  5. Add the black fungus, dried lily buds, carrot, cabbage and stir-fry briskly for a moment. Add water or stock, bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.
  6. Add the braised mushrooms and dried oysters. 
  7. Add in the bean curd and simmer for a while more.
  8. Add a bit of dark soy sauce. Adjust the taste, adding some soy sauce  if necessary. 
  9. Add the vermicelli and black moss. Stir a bit more and switch off fire.
  10. Serve hot and garnish with fresh coriander leaves.
Have I mentioned that goes well with sambal belachan?
I prefer the wok as the heat is more even, I can stir easily and I can see what is going on across the board wok. If you use a deep pot, it is likely that the heat is higher at the bottom and the stuff there will be overcooked unless you stir more frequently. Again, use your taste buds as a guide or just by looking, you should be able to tell if your cabbage is soft enough.

While this dish is easy to make, it can be difficult to master. Balance is important as too much of one type of ingredient can change the taste. Too much dried oyster can change the taste of the dish and you won't want that. Just because dried oyster is expensive, this does not mean that more of it will make the dish tastier. Texture is another challenge as each ingredient can be easily overcooked. You want the fungus to still have a bite and your cabbage pieces intact.

Soak your dried mushrooms in lukewarm water for about 20-30 minutes. For superior quality mushrooms, you may not need to cut the stems. Don't use hot water or soak for too long so that more of the the flavors are retained.

As you may change the source or brand of your ingredients the next time you make this, the timing needed to cook it to the right texture may change. I can tell you the sequence of what should go in first but the quality of my fungus is different from yours (the better quality ones will cook faster).

Remember to eat it garnished with some fresh coriander leaves. It is not just for the look. It tastes great together.

Close your eyes. Smell the steaming bowl first. Memories. Pick up something with your chopsticks. Be surprised by what you get. As my mama told me, life is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you are gonna get.

And this should be about the last you will hear from me in Gump-speak!

Round white cabbage and Wong Bok
Diced Carrots
Soaked Black Fungus

Lily bulbs or "kam chan." Trim off the hard bits, if any. Tying is optional.
Fried vermicelli or "tang hoon"

Beancurd sticks after they were lightly deep-fried

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  1. Sorry, may be a silly question but when it is listed as deep fried, do you have to deep fried it yourself or does it comes deep fried when you buy them?

  2. You referring to the bean curd sticks? Better to deep fry yourself. Briefly will do.

  3. May I know whats the reason for deep frying the Tang Hoon? Is it to prevent it from drying up the sauce?


  4. Yes, to reduce absorption rate of the Tang Hoon